Granular

From Albert Ruesga, Vice President, Programs and Communications, Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation

Albert writes:
Folks nowadays are taking a granular look at everything — the new study promises to be granular. Perhaps the study is shot through with the indigestible bits of some organic substance. Can it be good for something to be granular if it’s not good for it to be grainy?

Tony responds:
I’m going to take a fanciful leap here, and it’s probably wrong. But it’s too neat to resist. Is it possible that “granular” is riding a wave of popularity that started with the socio-political use of “granola”?

Now, bear with me for a minute. The 19th Century registered trade name Granola was derived, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, from “granular + -ola,” and evidently competed with a similar product of the same period named Granula. When the original trademark on “Granola” lapsed, it was re-registered, in 1928, to a certain grainmaker in Battle Creek, Michigan (where it no doubt helped to enlarge a fortune from which the philanthropic world continues to benefit).

The word wasn’t used as a generic term for tooth-cracking cereal until the 1970s — that refined decade that gave us “bathroom tissue” as a genteel substitute for T.P., and the Osmond Brothers as a genteel substitute for music. From there, it evidently took almost no time for a term describing crunchy breakfast food to become a generic word for crunchy people. The new edition of the OED (still in production) finds a use of “granola” describing people with “left-wing political views, concern for the protection of the environment, and the eating of health foods” as early as 1975. In that year, though, the citation still shows the word with its trademark capital initial. By 1980, the New York Times was quoting Republicans deriding California Governor Jerry Brown as “the granola governor” — now with a lower-case “g” — “appealing to flakes and nuts.”

Here’s why I think this has some bearing on the recent popularity of “granular” — a word that nowadays describes almost any degree of detailed thought below the level of sweeping generalization. You asked, “Can it be good for something to be granular if it’s not good for it to be grainy?” and I think the answer is Yes — provided that the “granules” are not fine, sandy motes that cloud the vision, but bigger, crunchier nuggets that give you something to chew on (even as they crack the enamel on your molars). Once we decided that gnawing on food-like rocks was healthy for both our digestion and the environment, it seems a small leap to want our information in the same barely-comestible form. (Note that “chewing” as a metaphor for thought goes back at least as far as the Middle Ages.)

“Grain,” in other words, is golden — at least in the mostly crunchy environs of latter-day progressive politics and philanthropy. (I suspect there are very few Heritage Foundation reports trumpeting their “granularity,” though I can’t claim much research to back this up.) This idea may be a tad far-fetched. But I offer it as a nugget to chew on. Perhaps over breakfast.

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